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One more time

For nearly a decade, the small New York village of Kiryas Joel has generated more than its share of headlines. Now, thanks to state lawmakers, it promises to be in the news again.

Located about 50 miles northwest of New York City, Kiryas Joel is populated entirely by members of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect known as Satmar Hasidim. It has gained attention because of 1989 and 1994 state laws that allowed creation of a special public school district serving only the small community's children with disabilities. Courts later struck down the laws, but legislators weren't done yet.

In August, legislators passed a bill that sets criteria allowing New York municipalities--including Kiryas Joel--to create their own special education districts. In signing the bill into law on Aug. 11, Republican Gov. George E. Pataki said at least 10 municipalities qualified under the law's criteria. The next day, the governor's office acknowledged that only six cities or towns met the law's criteria, but the exact figure wasn't important because the bill did not benefit only the village of Kiryas Joel.

Louis Grumet, the executive director of the New York State School Boards Association, said he would challenge the latest law just as he had filed lawsuits against the two previous laws. Only one other municipality meets the criteria, according to the association, which argues that the law is just the latest attempt to provide a special benefit to the Orthodox Jewish community.

The first challenged law was passed in 1989 but struck down in 1994 by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that the New York statute was not religiously neutral and thus violated the U.S. Constitution.

State lawmakers responded that year by rewriting the law, and the Kiryas Joel village school district was back in business--for a while.

But in May of this year, New York's highest court ruled that the new law again singled out Kiryas Joel for special treatment. By this summer, the state education department had more or less taken over the tiny district, which serves about 200 students with disabilities. Then came last month's legislative action.

"You could say we are a little frustrated," said Bill Pape, a spokesman for the state school boards' group. "No matter how often we win in court, the legislature seems intent on giving Kiryas Joel what it wants."

--MARK WALSH

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